The Billionaire Bubble

As the worldwide recession continues with stubborn ferocity, the biggest net losers are of course those with the most to lose…current and former billionaires.  As reported by Forbes, the world has lost nearly 30% of its billionaires in the past year. But as is the case with the “housing bubble”, the “billionaire bubble” still has a long way to fall before the astounding growth in their ranks truly “pops”. 


In Forbes 2000 survey of the world’s richest individuals, the total number of billionaires stood at 306 worldwide. By 2006, that number had more than doubled to 631. And in 2008 the list had grown to 1,125 billionaires. While inflation certainly played a part, that number still represents an astounding 368% increase since the start of the decade. And despite this year’s “crash” in billionaires to 793, that number still exceeds the 2000 level by 259%.

The American share of the world’s billionaire contingent actually increased this year–ending, at least for the moment, a rising trend in billionaires in the developing world. While the number of U.S. billionaires dropped from 472 in 2008 to 357 today, the decline was lower than in the rest of the world. According to Forbes, the United States now has 45% of the world’s billionaires (as compared to 42% last year).

While it is hard to cry too much for hurting billionaires, the two richest men on the list do bear mentioning. Bill Gates lost $18 billion in wealth, but actually climbed a spot when Warren Buffet lost $25 billion to fall to #2 on the list. As Gates and Buffet are two of the world’s great philanthropists, the combined loss of $42 billion between them will certainly have consequences for millions of people around the globe. Gates has immersed his energy and many billions of his dollars to the Gates Foundation, which helps fight hunger and improve health care and education in developing countries. Buffet has pledged almost his entire fortune to the Gates Foundation and other charities. The removal of this much wealth from the philanthropic pool–especially as the global economic slowdown continues to magnify need for such charity– may have lasting effects for years to come.

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